BlueChem, the unique incubator for sustainable chemistry in Antwerp, has prepared an investment dossier for substantial expansion. As a result, the laboratory capacity for innovative start-ups will more than double. This is vital because, just three years after the start, the specialised laboratories in the incubator are almost filled to capacity and interest from businesses both at home and abroad is steadily increasing. BlueChem XL will open its doors in 2025. This news was broken during a working visit by Flemish minister Jo Brouns and Antwerp’s alderman Erica Caluwaerts to mark the open doors day in the chemistry and life sciences industry, which takes place every four years. 

In the BlueChem incubator for sustainable chemistry, near the largest chemistry cluster in Europe in the port of Antwerp, a dozen promising start-ups apply innovations to make production processes and materials climate neutral, circular, more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. This concerns, for example, turning CO2 into a valuable raw material, purifying waste water to produce expensive materials such as palladium, or creating new technologies to more efficiently recycle plastics. But experiments have also involved molecular beer, proteins for sustainable food, more accurate analysis techniques for environmental measurements and drones for inspecting production installations.

International appearance

The innovative prowess of BlueChem is also gaining a foothold on an international level. This year, two foreign start-ups have decided to make their base in the chemistry incubator. Aquature is a British company, which specialises in innovative water purification technology whereby CO2 is removed from waste water and captured for reuse as a raw material. Fairbrics is a French scale-up which has developed a technology for converting CO2 into polyester, a much-used textile fibre for clothing.

BlueChem’s success formula – a specialised lab infrastructure combined with an extensive and customised service provision within a strong innovation network – is clear to all. That is why the various partners of BlueChem NV – main shareholder essenscia, city of Antwerp, POM Antwerp and VITO – have decided to back BlueChem XL, a substantial expansion of the existing incubator.

BlueChem XL

In the yet to be built “Blue Gate Antwerp Terminal North” – a new business hub at the eco-business area Blue Gate Antwerp, just 500 metres from the current incubator – BlueChem XL will cover 2,500 square metres, divided across two levels. The space will be dominated by laboratories (1,350 m2), along with a limited number of offices (150 m2). The lab capacity will double as a result: the current incubator has over 900 m2 in lab infrastructure. This is a deliberate choice because the offering of specialised chemistry labs in Flanders and even across Europe is very limited.

The development concerns an investment of 6.3 million euros and the initiators are hoping to raise half of this amount via government support from Europe and Flanders. The Government of Flanders, for instance, via the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) has already offered an in-principle pledge and is currently focusing on processing the application for support from the Innovation and Enterprise Fund. With these two projects, Flanders will provide support to the tune of just under 3 million euros. If everything goes according to plan, BlueChem hopes to open its doors in spring 2025.

Jo Brouns, Flemish minister of the Economy, Innovation and Work: “Flanders is a great region with respect to innovation and the chemical sector is one of the most important sectors in our Flemish economy. The success of the BlueChem incubator confirms the added value of experimentation space on a laboratory scale. Start-ups play a hugely important role in stimulating innovation in the sector. Here, you can see where sustainable chemistry could end up in the future.  The investments in the expansion of the BlueChem incubator have my full support. With this, we are developing one of the strongest chemistry clusters in the world, right here in Flanders.”

Erica Caluwaerts, Antwerp’s Alderman for Economy, Work, Innovation and Industry: “Antwerp has the largest integrated chemicals cluster in Europe and one of the biggest and most specialised in the world. The chemical industry will play a crucial role in the sustainable transition towards climate-neutrality and a circular economy. That is why, as the city’s administration, we are investing heavily in initiatives such as BlueChem, which stimulate breakthrough innovations to help make the chemical industry more sustainable. With BlueChem XL, we are working towards the chemical industry of the future.”

Liesbet Boogaerts and Barbara Veranneman, manager and chair of BlueChem: “The success of BlueChem has exceeded all expectations. This clearly demonstrates that there are many sustainable developments in the chemical sector and that there is a huge need for suitable accommodation with hyper-modern labs to support these innovations. And this is not just any old expansion. This is an exceptionally strategic investment decision that gives BlueChem extra clout to attract further promising and innovative start-ups both at home and abroad. In a very short time, the incubator has expanded into a European hotspot for technological innovations in sustainable chemicals. We now aim to reinforce this leading position.”

The working visit by the minister and alderman took place on the occasion of the four-yearly open-doors day for chemistry and life sciences, an event organised by sector association essenscia. This weekend, around fifty chemicals, plastics and pharmaceutical companies across Belgium will open their doors to the public at large. It is a great opportunity to visit laboratories and production installations that would otherwise not be accessible and discover more about the many job opportunities and sustainable innovations in the sector.